Are portrayals of the occult in entertainment on the rise? Should that be a concern? What is the occult, anyways? There is a lot we need to discuss, from the history of the occult itself to misunderstandings and more.
First, you should know that the word “occult” comes from the Latin occultus, which means “hidden.” Instead of dealing with our world, occult practices supposedly deal with the spiritual stuff we can’t determine on Earth. However, where is the line between an occult practice and religion drawn? What about the line between the occult and science?
Is the occult as far removed from our daily, physical world as we think? In short: no, it’s not.
Pharmakaeia In EntertainmentTo us, the idea that medicine has anything to do with the occult seems ridiculous. Medicine is science, for crying out loud! The occult is spiritual, beyond the realm of scientific consensus. However, this was not always the case. In fact, both concepts have roots in the ancient Greek word “pharmakeia.”
This Greek word, “pharmakaeia,” eventually developed into the modern word pharmacy. However, in the Ancient Greek language, “pharmakeia” had other connotations. Many modern English translations of the Bible translate pharmakeia as “sorcery” or “witchcraft.”
The reason? Ancient pharmakaeia involved making potions with herbs to treat the sick. This often involved a spiritual part just as much as the use of Earthly herbs. In ancient times, the physical and spiritual were seen as intrinsically linked. That can lead to quite a lot of problems.
Some ancient remedies really worked and continued to evolve as humanity advanced. For example, the infamous Greek doctor Hippocrates recommended using willow bark to treat pain. Nowadays, we know this treatment simply by the name of “aspirin.”
The Heavy Dose Of Pharmakaeia In Entertainment:
Today, most people use medication of some kind. Whether it is daily or when they get sick. Entertainment shows people taking pills, and no one with a reasonable mind would call this an example of the occult in entertainment. However, back in ancient times, it might have been called “pharmakaeia.”
Of course, many stories also portray drug abuse in entertainment, which might be seen as a little more in line with the occult. Generally, stories about drug abuse fall into one of two categories: it’s a quirk, or it defines the character. House‘s main character, Dr. Greg House, struggles with addiction.
House’s addiction seldom compromises his day-to-day life. Requiem for a Dream shows addiction consuming its characters, however. Queer as Folk’s three series all portray characters casually using drugs. However, in the early 2000s version from England, they also portray overdosing and addiction with the human element that entertainment can neglect.
Alchemy In EntertainmentWhen the Harry Potter books hit the shelves in the late 1990s, many religious groups whipped up a frenzy about its supposed promotion of witchcraft. However, Harry Potter has little to no basis in actual witchcraft. Instead, Harry Potter is based on alchemy.
This is the same mythical process popular fantasy series like Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher, and the American anime RWBY are based on.
Alchemy is a universal myth though. It has roots in the ancient Near East, China, India, and medieval Europe. Various steps and processes vary. However, the overall principles are always the same: break something down, and bring it back together as a more refined version.
It might seem weird to consider alchemy a part of the occult in entertainment, though. After all, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia book series heavily references alchemy. Narnia is also a Christian allegory. This is not an inherent contradiction, however. Alchemy, particularly in the west, merged with Christianity.
Alchemy & Religion:
The alchemical process was seen as a metaphor for Christian transformation. Thus it’s easy to ask: is alchemy part of the occult? Traditionally, yes, but not without debate.
As noted by Aaron Kitch in his paper on the Ripley Scrolls (an important document in western alchemy, and the inspiration for RWBY’s plot structure):
This emphasis on secrecy helped alchemy to develop its reputation as a mystical and occult practice… even as more recent historians of science have sought to redefine alchemy as a science of matter that influenced the Scientific Revolution.
The initial goal of alchemy was to turn lead into gold and/or create a potion of eternal life. Many scientists, like Isaac Newton, experimented with alchemy. Chemists like Johann Glauber discovered important organic compounds while studying alchemy. In fact, science considers alchemy the foundation for modern chemistry.
Witchcraft In EntertainmentThe 1990s were full of witchy entertainment. Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all began airing during this decade. Unlike Harry Potter, these shows were more actually based on occult practices. However, none of them were really accurate portrayals of witchcraft in entertainment. Then again, none of them attempted to be.
Instead, these shows aimed to entertain, but with enough foundation to ground the magic.
Much of the witchcraft portrayed in these shows draw heavily from Wicca, an ancient pagan religion. Wicca is not necessarily synonymous with witchcraft, although many traditions of witchcraft, especially in the west, do draw on the Wicca religion in some form.
Charmed contains some real-world Wiccan practices, such as the Book of Shadows. In the show, it’s magic, but in real life, a Book of Shadows is more of a journal to chronicle one’s spiritual progress. While Wiccans often use spells, they don’t inherently worship any particular deity.
Gods portrayed may instead be seen as psychological ideas. This is a notable turn from the witchcraft portrayed in all three mentioned shows, with have their own portrayals of gods and higher powers. With Charmed and Sabrina already having reboots, and a Buffy reboot announced, it’s possible these portrayals will be updated.
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes a much more accurate portrayal of Wicca than its 1990s counterpart, showing actual Wiccan ceremonies (with some dramatic twists!)
Tarot In EntertainmentAnother example of the occult in entertainment is the use of tarot. A tarot deck has 78 cards: the “minor arcana” has 56 cards that line up with common-day playing cards. You also have the “major arcana,” which has 22 cards that tell a story. This story, known as the “Fool’s Journey,” also influenced modern-day psychology!
Carl Jung studied under Sigmund Freud and considered the tarot as a portrayal of “archetypes of mankind.” These archetypes were, in Jung’s view, images and ideas that resonate with people around the world. Jung’s archetypes heavily influenced literary criticism in the twentieth century.
Ishida Sui’s popular manga and anime Tokyo Ghoul and its sequel, Tokyo Ghoul:re structures its story around the major arcana. Tokyo Ghoul‘s protagonist, Kaneki Ken, starts off as a fool and, through a variety of encounters and experiences, grows to appreciate the world.
Sui even incorporates distinct numbers into his manga paneling to clue readers into what tarot each plot line explores. True to form, Tokyo Ghoul is a deeply psychological manga. It explores depression and self-hatred through the metaphor of flesh-eating ghouls.
Previously mentioned shows like Charmed and Sabrina also use tarots. However, in these cases, the tarot cards are not a structure. Instead, tarots appear as symbolic props. The portrayal of tarot varies wildly in accuracy as well. For example, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina portrays the card “Death” as predicting a literal death. In actuality, the card is about a spiritual end rather than a physical death!
Voodoo In EntertainmentRooted in ancient African religions, Vodou has many variations. In the west, Vodou frequently incorporates elements of Christianity and other religions. You might know it as Santeria, Vodou, voodoo, or hoodoo. These different names stem from the regions where they are practiced and the influences that went into creating the religions.
Does Vodou have anything to offer scientifically? Yes. Herbs and roots as medicine play an important role in Vodou, and African enslaved people carried this knowledge with them when they were kidnapped to the Americas. Additionally, an enslaved man named Onesimus first introduced the idea of inoculation to the west.
During a smallpox outbreak, Onesimus told Cotton Mather about the African practice of inoculation.
Hollywood commonly portrays Louisiana Voodoo. To no one’s surprise, though, Hollywood often reduces it to a stereotype and often gets their version wrong. Disney’s The Princess and the Frog’s Dr. Facilier is one such example. However, in The Princess and the Frog, there is a more positive voodoo portrayal of Mama Odie, who helps save Tiana.
American Horror Story: Coven takes a much more negative approach to Voodoo. The show portrayed a real-life woman, Marie Laveau, as a monster who kills children. Turning a historical woman of color into a demonic child-murderer sits uncomfortably at best, and downright offensive at worst.
Plus, the portrayal is extremely inaccurate.
New Orleans Voodoo actually combines West African traditions with Christian ones. Laveau was actually a faithful Catholic and a major founder of Louisiana Voodoo. During her life, Laveau worked in communities of color. She also visited prisons to pray with and care for prisoners condemned to hang.
Any fictional version of her should be more along the lines of Mama Odie than what American Horror Story: Coven went for.
The Occult in EntertainmentLet’s go back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In “Gingerbread” (Season 3, Episode 11), Satanic panic takes over the town after two children show up murdered in some kind of evil Satanic ritual. As Buffy’s mother, Joyce, says:
This is not a good town… silence is this town’s disease. For too long it’s been plagued by unnatural evils. It’s not our town any more. It belongs to the monsters, to the witches and Slayers.
Joyce then suggests the people of Sunnydale take their town back from monsters. The irony? The two murdered children are the actual monsters who travel from town to town inciting panic and turning the townspeople against each other.
In response, Joyce and the other parents end up nearly murdering their own children. In their fear of monsters, they become monsters themselves. They become puppets subjected to the whims of two murderous ghosts.
The occult has always been a part of the entertainment world, whether it be fantasy or science fiction, contemporary or historical. The physical and the spiritual are clearly not as separate as they might seem.
Even for the religious, should the occult as part of entertainment be feared, or just seen as an attempt to learn more about our world and to wonder at the possibilities? This is a question those specific people have to answer for themselves.